Some Stanley Cup champions never wear their rings. Some bring them out only for special occasions. Garnet "Ace" Bailey always wore his. He won seven — two as a player for the Boston Bruins, five as a scout for the Edmonton Oilers — and he would rotate them, sharing them with the world one at a time, proud of each in its own way, as if they were children.
"He loved the first one as much as he loved the seventh one," said Wayne Gretzky, a close friend. "I just think it was like, they're all wonderful. No one was better than the other."
So imagine the image in March at the annual "Face Off for Ace" dinner in Boston. On a table stood the Stanley Cup, surrounded by black jewelry boxes on a black cloth. Six boxes were filled. But one box … "They had it empty," Gretzky said.
Bailey was wearing his 1988 Oilers ring on Sept. 11, 2001. As the Los Angeles Kings' director of pro scouting, he was heading to training camp with Kings amateur scout Mark Bavis. They were aboard United Flight 175 from Boston to L.A. when the hijacked airliner was flown into the World Trade Center in New York. Bailey was 53. Bavis was 31.
Though some jewelry and personal effects were found at Ground Zero, the ring was never recovered. Gretzky said the display was "one of the most touching things" he had seen in a long time. It was a powerful reminder that nothing can fill the void left by that day. "The pain doesn't go away, but you learn to manage it," said Barbara Pothier, Bailey's sister-in-law.
Yet it was also a powerful reminder of the legacy left behind. The empty ring box was in a room full of family, friends, celebrities and regular folks — including Ace's 2-year-old grandson, Evan Garnet Bailey — who had come to remember Ace and raise money for the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation.
In the 10 years since the tragedy of 9/11, the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation has raised about $2 million — most of it going to the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. There is a new playroom called "Ace's Place." There is a renovated neonatal intensive care unit. The next project is a new front end for the pediatric emergency room.
The Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation has given out about $30,000 a year in scholarships to Massachusetts students in financial need who have made an impact in their communities.
"To see the Stanley Cup and those rings was so impressive," said Rick Smith, a former teammate of Bailey's. "But to have the one missing … Hard to say. It brought a special feeling to the room, and I guess one of the things that I keep coming back to is, it feels like Ace is still with us. Especially in Floating Hospital, it feels like he's still active and alive in our hearts."
What kind of guy was Bailey? The kind of guy who signed his name with a smiley face inside the "A" in Ace.
Gretzky used to tease him about it. "I always told him, 'When you score six goals a year, you've got to do something special with something,' " Gretzky said with a laugh. But though Bailey didn't have Gretzky's gifts, he had a gift of his own — in Pothier's words, the ability to bring "bubbly happiness" to people wherever he went.
Bailey could relate to the great ones, which is why general manager Glen Sather brought him in to mentor the Great One when Gretzky joined the Oilers in 1978-79 — the season before the team left the World Hockey Association for the NHL. Bailey was a third-line vet near the end of a career that included stints with the Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, but he had played with Bobby Orr. He could tell this 17-year-old what Orr went through as a young phenom.
They talked for hours about Orr. They skated together, roomed together and flew together. Bailey loved to travel; Gretzky hated to fly. Bailey told Gretzky the back of the plane was the safest place to be, and Gretzky still recalls that every time he thinks of 9/11.
Bailey became an Oilers scout but remained Gretzky's mentor. Before big games, Gretzky would see Bailey in the hotel lobby, or in the stands, or at a restaurant. They would talk about not only hockey, but life. Gretzky spent Christmases with Bailey's family. They went to Europe together a couple of times. Bailey went from Gretzky's father figure to his best friend.
But Bailey was buddies with everybody, not just the big names. He was a glue guy as a player, making everyone feel a part of the team, and he was the same as a scout. He knew everyone in the Oilers' office. He would bring the secretaries a bottle of champagne or some roses on special occasions. One of them was in a wheelchair, and whenever the Oilers won the Stanley Cup, it was Ace who would push her into the dressing room.
And kids … Ace loved kids, and they loved him.
"I say this with tremendous heart," Gretzky said. "Ace wasn't the greatest hockey player that ever played, but he might have been the greatest person who ever played in the NHL. … What they're doing in the hospital in Boston is 100-percent Ace."
After 9/11, the Boston Bruins' alumni association gave the Bailey family a check for about $10,000 to use in memory of Ace. Pothier had moved in with her sister, Katherine Bailey, to help her through her grief. In Ace's home office, she set up a foundation. She compiled a database of the countless sympathy cards and letters they received, and that's how they invited people to the first fundraiser. It sold out in a couple of weeks.
The Baileys had been introduced to the Floating Hospital by Bruins great Cam Neely's foundation. They wanted to build a playroom for sick kids. Ace had visited children's hospitals as a player with the Bruins; the Floating Hospital had an old, dark, drab playroom that badly needed updating. It was a perfect match. All Pothier needed was one of Ace's smiley-face signatures to create a logo, but where could she find one? It wasn't like the family collected Ace's autograph.
Pothier found it on Ace's fax machine. The morning of 9/11, he had written a mundane note to a friend to pass along someone's contact information. He had signed it as he signed everything. "It was the last thing he wrote before he left for that flight," said Pothier, now the executive director of the foundation. "We've been using it ever since."
The smiley-face signature is now on pucks, stickers, hats and T-shirts. It's incorporated in the logo the Manchester Monarchs — the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate — use for their annual "Ace Bailey Golf Classic" to benefit local charities and the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation. "It's that same Ace that has been spread all over the place," Pothier said.
In 2005, Ace's Place opened — a place where kids could feel at home in the hospital. Walk off the eighth-floor elevator and there is a piece of art showing Ace skating and pucks on the wall featuring the names of donors. Inside the doors are toys and games and distractions for toddlers to teenagers.
In 2008, the new NICU opened — a place where families could take better care of their sick babies. New flooring, new paint, new curtains, new seating — new everything. A large nursery. Rooms for parents to relax, eat and meet with doctors. Warm, bright colors to promote hope and healing.
Next will be the new front end to the pediatric emergency room — a smaller version of Ace's Place and a couple of parent consultation rooms. When kids come to the PED, they will enter through the playroom and hopefully won't be as scared. Just about $30,000 to go, maybe another six to eight months.
"Really it's a continuation of the way he was and the things that he brought to every room that he walked into. It was a feeling of laughter and smiles and happiness," said Smith, who comes from his Ottawa home to Boston and visits the hospital often. "Somehow Ace found a way to bring life to the hospital, which is very important, but he also brought life to his family. … He continues to bring us life and good feeling."
Said Gretzky: "I know he'd be smiling. He always had a smile on his face."
Mike Bavis knew his brother Mark so well. They were twins. They had battled together growing up. They had played together at Boston University and in the minor leagues. As the associate head coach at BU now, Mike looks for the same type of player Mark did as a scout for the Kings — the same type of player they were.
"You need competitive people in your lineup to win championships," Mike said. "That's the reality. You've got to have skill, obviously, but you better have competitors. That's something I think we both had an appreciation for."
But after 9/11, Mike learned even more about Mark. Not only had Mark worked for the Kings — helping draft the likes of Mike Cammalleri and David Steckel — he had been an assistant coach at Brown and Harvard and a head coach in the minors. He had been involved in youth hockey for years. In 2001, he had opened his own summer hockey camp in Canton, Mass. The family heard from several former players whom Mark had mentored, helping them through tough times or just the difficult transition from high school to college.
That's where the idea came for the Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation. "There's been some really great stories of kids who have made some amazing impacts through their leadership, and those are the kids we wanted associated with my brother's foundation," Mike said.
The Bavises are also proud to be associated with the Baileys. The families have formed a good relationship. "I take great comfort that my brother not only worked with Ace, but was traveling with Ace that day," said Mike, while on the road scouting in British Columbia. "I think if they had crossed paths earlier in life, I think they would have been even closer friends or really good friends. I think they were similar in their life and how they like to live life."
Ten years later, their legacies live on.
"When we started the foundation, we weren't really thinking it would be here for the 10th anniversary," Pothier said. "But here it is, and it's doing well, and it's been very cathartic for our family to be able to do something to remember Ace and his big, big happy spirit."
Asked why she didn't think the foundation would be here for the 10th anniversary, Pothier took a deep breath.
"I think when 9/11 happened … I think losing Ace that day was so unbelievably traumatic, that we didn't fully grasp how much every single American was affected by it," she said. "And so I think as we started out, we didn't realize how generous people would be. And for me personally …"
Pothier paused to collect herself.
"For me personally, it was the first time I had experienced love in the wider way, in a bigger way — the big L-O-V-E," she said. "So many people came forward with their hearts first and wanted to do something, wanting to help, wanting to give money or help out in some way, and it was so overwhelming that it helped pull us out of the horribleness of losing Ace and the horror of what those people did. Do you know what I mean? It was extraordinary."
It still is.
For more information, visit the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation at www.acebailey.org and the Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation at www.markbavisleadershipfoundation.org.